The third time I floated the Rio Grande River through Boquillas Canyon, things went smoothly. Since that was my first time to lead an actual group into the backcountry, that seemingly simple fact, was an especially good thing. There were twelve of us on that particular trip, paddling two per aluminum canoe. We made the 33 mile float down the Rio Grande over the course of three days, with two nights spent camping along the way, had only one simple “getting knocked out of the canoe” situation and a straightforward shuttle at the end. Mostly, all we had to do was read the current, soak up sun, gaze out at the mighty Sierra del Carmen rising above us off to the southeast in Mexico and ponder the magnificence and complexities of the monstrous cliff walls which engulfed us much of the time, making us all feel mighty small.
Things hadn’t been that way on my first two trips. It wasn’t that the river, spectacular canyon walls and the looming bluish massif of the Sierra del Carmen were not there on those trips, it’s just that there had been other things to think about.
I went there the first time with Coulter, a guy I’d gone to high school with, just after our freshmen years in college. We put in our “cost less than $100 rubber raft” near the small Mexican village of Boquillas, a few miles upriver of the actual canyon, of the same name. We had wasted little time reading guide books and were not concerned by the fact that civilization as we knew it pretty much ended at the town of Boquillas. For whatever reason, we were confident that we’d planned it all meticulously, although that was not necessarily the case. We were, however, prepared—and that ended up being our saving grace.
There were a couple of things that we did know about the trip as we pushed the raft off from the bank into the lazy current. First, was that we were headed into one of the three big canyons along the Rio Grande, as it flows through Big Bend National Park, that are formed by that sometimes mighty river cutting its way through solid rock and second, that there were no big rapids to worry about. The latter was especially important since neither of us had much in the way of river or whitewater experience, other than what we had garnered during our boyhoods of occasionally navigating the muddy creeks of north central Texas.
The current soon grabbed us and swept us past the point of no return. It was a mysterious and magical realm we entered as the rocks rose both to our right and left. Suddenly, there was no Mexico and no United States. No Big Bend rangers, no parents and no one to ask. There was only the water, a warm breeze, rocks, sand, cane, buzzards soaring overhead, and mountains without people, surrounding us in every direction.
We started in the afternoon and planned to go only a couple of hours into the canyon before finding a place to pitch our tent for that first night. We somehow knew enough to paddle more or less together, from either the stern or bow and placed our fully packed frame backpacks in the middle. We were amazed by how much weight the raft held and initially, at least, were pleased by how well it was all working out- and all for less than $100.
The current wasted little time pulling us into the canyon. We had to do little, in the way of paddling, in order to move as fast as we dared. Essentially, all we had to do was keep the front pointed downstream while the river did the rest of the work. By 5 pm, we felt the south breeze, which up till then had mostly been at our backs, begin to shift more to the east and change from a gentle breeze into a stiff one. The river made a sweeping turn to our left and as we emerged into yet another straightaway, something drastically changed and we were suddenly hit almost head-on by a brutal, sand-filled gale that almost completely stopped our forward progress.
We both dug our paddles into the water and pulled for all we were worth in an attempt to move forward. After paddling for five minutes, we gauged our progress relative to an old tree trunk over on the shore, and noted that we had at least held our own and had not been blown upstream. If only we had a canoe, I thought, maybe we’d actually be moving forward.
By a stroke of luck, a large sand bar created the US side of the river right where we were, and amidst all of the paddling struggle, we were able to glance over and see some camping possibilities. We had planned to go further before stopping to camp and were hoping to find a nice grass covered flat spot for pitching our early day dome tent, but at that particular moment, we opted to go for whatever we could get.
Thankfully, we were close to the shore and after a few minutes of complex paddling got close enough to the edge for Coulter to jump off into the shallow shore water while holding the bow line of the boat and bring the whole thing ashore. Our first instinct was to use the raft as a combination wind break and shelter, but soon realized that it caught too much wind for that and then just focused on the need to securely anchor it to the ground to keep it from blowing away.
I will say, that losing your boat out where we were, would suck, although we didn’t think much about that at the time.
After some struggle, we were able to tie the raft down to the big log we’d used to check our progress. Once we felt good about that, we began looking for a good place to set up the tent. We recognized that we were quickly becoming overwhelmed by the wind and needed to get out of it, so were even less picky regarding a tentsite. We located a spot that was level, although not particularly protected from the wind, pulled the 3-person tent out and went about the process of fighting the wind to set it up.
What should’ve taken only a few minutes, took considerably more, but we eventually got it put up and, almost miraculously, with the door facing away from the wind. As soon as it was ready to go, we climbed in and zipped the door shut. Even though we could hear the wind pounding outside, it was calm and there was no sand blowing inside, and so- for the moment, all was good.
Eventually, the wind subsided to the point where we could go outside and cook supper, although we opted for the no-cook meal that we’d luckily brought. The wind was not something I’d even considered, as I did whatever planning I did prior to the trip. While eating a mix of crackers, peanut butter, cheese and Oreos, I speculated about such things as what we would’ve done about supper had the wind not calmed down. And for the first time in my young life, I realized, that had that been the case, we would’ve probably done just what we were doing.
After the wind incident, the rest of the trip went flawlessly. A couple of days later we pulled the raft up onto the bank, just under the bridge at La Linda, and shuttled back into the park. A few days later, we floated the middle of the three Big Bend canyons, Mariscal. Interestingly, we did something of a rescue in the middle of the canyon, when a group of four college guys had issues negotiating the Tight Squeeze on their sailboat bottom and we came upon them just as they were all launched into the water. That trip was the last one for the “under $100 raft”, but we certainly got our money’s worth.
So, that brings us to the other trip, which was actually my second one. Several years after the wind trip and a few months before my first trip as a group leader, I did it with old friend, whom I’ll call, Busby. Our plan was to do it as something of a dress rehearsal for the trip we would be doing with a group of teenagers, in early August. It would have made sense to have many of the details worked out prior to doing our own exploratory excursion, but we assumed that most of those would be figured out after the fact—once we’d actually experienced some of the specific issues. I will say that we were at least doing it at a time of the year when the water and weather were relatively warm, had what we considered to be a bombproof aluminum canoe from the summer camp where we worked and that didn’t leak and knew where we our starting point was going to be. Other details, such as those related to the required shuttle at the take-out were a bit more ambiguous.
Things started off like clock-work. We made the six hour drive to the park and down to Rio Grande Village as scheduled, arriving late afternoon with plenty of time to set up our tent and have supper prior to dark. We were fully energized and ready to go when we carried the canoe over to the water the next morning. With the boat in a shallow, calm backwater, we loaded our packs into the middle and then climbed in. We just sat on the bow and stern seats, given the relatively calm nature of the water, and eased out into the current.
The first few miles from Rio Grande Village, past Boquillas crossing and on into the canyon is mellow, in a word. The terrain is relatively flat, with only the mountains off in the distance creating any sort of relief. The warm sun and nice, predictable flow began conspiring early-on to relax me. The canyon walls rose up sporadically and then magnificently as we entered the canyon. To better take it all in, I put my paddle down and laid back on my seat and the back of the canoe. Studying the seemingly perfectly orchestrated chaos of the rock overwhelmed my senses. River Cane grew in scattered, unlikely spots where cracks and creases blended into bits of sand and dirt which seemed to spring up everywhere that the river made a turn. Two Crows soared near the top of the massive rock, which in places rose directly out of the water and seemed to extend into the sky. All the while, the sun continued doing its work and since the water was so calm, I decided to just close my eyes for a moment and take a quick nap. That was a poorly thought out thing to do.
While I’d been conscious and controlling my end of the boat, everything had gone well. But apparently something changed once I drifted off into relaxed slumber. Bad timing, I suppose. Something, perhaps a new sound, sudden shift or abrupt change in speed, woke me abruptly and sent me springing into action, but I was a bit behind the curve. Busby was in the bow and doing what he could to keep us pointed downstream as we entered into a section of somewhat swifter current. He was struggling to keep us from turning broadside into the current, which, I knew, often leads a canoe to swamp or turn over.
I grabbed for my paddle, but a couple of miscues in my attempts to do so, delayed my action. Within a few seconds, I was able to slide back down onto the seat and finally got my paddle into the water. But, it was just as the bow veered abruptly to the left, sending us perpendicular to the current, which not unexpectedly, turned the boat over, dumping us into the river.
Our situation was not all that good, but after a quick survey of our immediate surroundings, I could see that at least the rapid that had created the problem was actually more of a riffle that soon disappeared; we were in the midst of a big, slow moving pool; that there was a big sandbar to our north where we could get out and reorganize ourselves and that our backpacks were still closed and just floating nearby. Things could’ve been worse, but they weren’t.
We were not on any sort of strict schedule, so we grabbed the canoe and our packs and drug them, along with ourselves, up onto the beach and began methodically reorganizing and drying things out. Everything was mostly packed back up and back to normal within about an hour. At that point, we moved the canoe into loading position adjacent to the bank, Busby secured the bow and I loaded up the packs. At least this second time around, we tied things down better, realizing the problems that could potentially develop if one or both of the packs floated away. We each carefully climbed in and took our positions, back-paddled out into the current and attentively headed on downstream. We were on the road again, so to speak.
We spent three days floating through the canyon—From Rio Grande Village to the take-out at La Linda. Other than the swamping incident, it was a leisurely and spectacular float. We camped two times along the way and it appeared that it would be an almost perfect trip for the type of group we’d have with us later in the year.
We were pleased with how seamlessly things were going as we floated out of the canyon and entered into the homestretch. I began to think ahead to the end and the various logistics involved with taking the canoe out, going back the hundred or so miles to Rio Grande Village to get my Scout, driving it back, loading it up and making the 5 or so hour drive back home. It was at about that time, that I realized that during the planning phase of the outing, I had left that whole end of the canoe trip part out. I had essentially just spaced on the need to figure that out. But somehow, it did.
About an hour before reaching La Linda, and at about the point in time where I’d come to the realization that we had no real shuttle plan, we floated up on a group of two canoes and four people, who right off the bat mentioned that they were headed to La Linda, just like us. I inquired about their shuttle plans and they mentioned they had a Suburban parked near the crossing at the Stillwell Store and would be taking it back to Rio Grande Village where they had left another vehicle. I did the math and realized there was room for me in the Suburban. I was concerned about leaving the canoe and backpacks while doing the shuttle, but figured Busby could stay and guard them, while I made the round trip.
And so, after some chit chat, I asked if they’d give me a ride back to Rio Grande Village, and they agreed. Problem solved, at least for me. We floated on past the savior group, with them agreeing to meet on the US side under the La Linda bridge. Within a few minutes their two canoes disappeared around a turn, behind us. We soon floated up to the bridge, eased over to the shore and landed.
It’s complicated just why there’s a bridge at that spot. It was built, and built well, in the early 60’s to provide access between the US and a fluorspar mine on the Mexican side. By the time we were there, which was the late 70’s, something of a real town was developing surrounding the mine and on the Mexican side. There was never much of anything on the US side other than miles of open desert.
The mine was in full operational mode as we pulled the canoe up onto the shore. We didn’t want to just leave it out in the open for the whole world to see, but there was no sort of structure or vegetation of any size to hide it behind. So, we just did the best we could and carried it up the bank a hundred feet or so and stuck both it and our backpacks behind a clump of not so big bushes. Just as we were finishing up with that, the two boats of our shuttle friends arrived. Being in something of a desperate, thankful and conciliatory situation, we headed straight back down to the river’s edge and helped them ferry boats and equipment up to the road, where we loaded both canoes and all of the associated gear into and onto the Suburban.
So, back to our own things…… We’d made the decision not to invite thievery by making our stuff obvious, so were content to leave it all “sort of” hidden and only part of the way up from the river to the highway. We’d just haul it the rest of the way up, once I got back, we figured. It was mid afternoon by the time the Suburban was loaded and we were ready to go. I told Busby I’d be back in four hours or so, which meant that if all went well, I’d be back before sunset.
Things did go well with the shuttle, although by the time I got back to La Linda, it was after dark. The round trip had taken a bit longer than anticipated. As I drove up, at first there was no sign of anything. But once I stopped, got out and yelled for Busby, he emerged from the thicket he was hiding in, we hauled the boat and packs up to the road, loaded the scout and by early evening, were turned around and driving toward the mighty small Texas town of Marathon. I looked at the fuel gauge and was comforted to note that we had more than enough gas to get there, if all went as planned.